Full Disclosure: I’ve written a review of Fauverie for the next edition of Poetry Wales, who provided a review copy. Thanks to editor Nia Davies for kindly giving the go-ahead to this piece. Content warning: discussions of sexual assault.
Review: I’d encourage any potential reader of Fauverie to look first at this interview with Prac Crit, in which Petit elaborates on some of the real life contexts for the book. It is a tough read, and Petit talks openly and frankly about rape, mental illness and abandonment. Similarly, Fauverie works partly in light of her 2001 collection The Zoo Father, if at all possible I’d also recommend reading the earlier book.
Though it too has its moments of tenderness, The Zoo Father seems in its most emotionally charged moments an angry book. In the first section its imaginative strength is employed in disempowering, making safe or actively harming the father in something like acts of retribution; these poems explicitly relate what the father has done to his family, and are difficult and painful to read. It’s an important collection, one I wish I’d read sooner. Fourteen years later, Fauverie – though it too openly confronts plain facts of violence and abuse – is at heart, I think, a book about finding peace. Though the organising details – the poet visiting her father on his deathbed in Paris – are the same, it does not so much re-write the story as examine it from different angles. The third poem in the collection, ‘Portrait of My Father as a Bird Fancier’, quite explicitly questions the morality of returning to a story, or of selecting another imaginative reality:
‘The one a nightingale serenades
just because he’s in pain – that’s
the father I choose, not the man
who thrusts red-hot prongs in their eyes
so their songs will carry for miles.’
The poem ends with this certainty undermined:
‘He does not make canaries trill so loud
that the tiny branches of their lungs
burst. I am sure of this, though I am just
an ounce in the fist of his hand.’
The poem sets out the risk being taken in this re-examination; the book gives the father a voice on several occasions, and at times permits a view of him not solely as the monster of The Zoo Father, but as an old man himself confronting death; though the potential even for a dying man to commit or denote violence is, as in these lines, rarely far from the surface. It is noticeable, for example, that the father’s pleasures, like ‘Pâté de Foie Gras’ or ‘Ortolan’, require the incarceration and torture of wild animals. This tension between the conscious pursuit of healing and the acknowledgement of lived reality animates the collection; the zoo animals of the title seem to enact this dissonance in their being at once beautiful wild creatures and shut away from their natural habitats and instincts.
As the back cover blurb notes, the ‘Fauves’ were ‘primitivist’ painters – of whom Matisse was considered a member – noted for their use of vivid, undoctored colours, for depositing paint straight from the tube to the canvas. The answer to the darkness in both Fauverie and The Zoo Father is a barely-contained richness in the poems’ vocabulary and imagery, which often comes across as an insistence on the perceiver’s survival and ability to perceive beauty in the world. The ‘Fauverie’ refers to the big cat house in the Jardin des Plantes; in the Prac Crit interview Petit talks about her time spent in the Amazon rainforest, and in Fauverie there seems a deeply felt identification with the native animals in the Parisian zoo. These poems seem to act as a kind of exhalation to counter the tension in those focused on her father; see ‘Blue-and-Gold Macaw Feather’:
‘I could paint a world
with this brush, these hues.
Is this how God felt as he drew
His colours across the void?’
and ‘Black Jaguar with Goat’:
‘What is innocence?
He is devouring his meal as trained.
What is worse –
to be the too-real prey
or the predator
These take their time to follow a more recognisably logical train of thought – here is the physical object, here is the question the object provokes, however obliquely – and this ordinariness comes as a kind of relief, a re-alignment of the book’s magnetic north. These poems bookend the collection, and in the middle is an almost unrelenting quest (or series of quests) into the book’s subconscious; perhaps what is remarkable is that so many poems’ imaginative transformations are ultimately benign or restorative. ‘How to Hand-Feed Sparrows (Instructions to My Father)’ figures the father as a candle, melting away in its generous gesture:
‘Keep your hand steady, support it with
your other arm, until your flesh is stiff as wax
while other messengers of darkness and fire
fly down to taste your offering. […]
Let it burn down to the soles of your feet.’
In a similar vein is the superb ‘My Father’s Mirror’, in which the eponymous furniture ‘went walking / through the streets of Paris’, until:
‘The sun carried him as far as the bridge
then he lay down and became a puddle.
The snow, when it fell, was gentle,
the flakes gathering
like a sheet drawn over his face.’
These remind me of Heaney’s ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’ and Longley’s ‘In Memoriam’ respectively, though that might just be me. There is something Longleyan in the poet’s ability to find peace or the peaceful image in the midst of suffering, though, for example at the close of the late poem, ‘Effigy’, in which the father has become an exhibit in the Musée du quai Branly:
‘This man is my father,
he speaks with the tenderness of flowers.’
I think that here is the crux of the collection. There are some powerful individual poems in the book, particularly the controlled rage and defiance of ‘Bullet Ants’, the nightmarish economy of ‘Blackbird’ and ‘Cellar’. But the basic unit is the entire book rather than its individual parts, and I think (perhaps optimistically?) that its narrative arc hits a nadir in the childhood cellar, with the imaginative interaction of child and adult poet:
‘She has been down there
with her father for fifty years.
I call her ‘she’
because she is the cellar ‘me’. […]
And she focuses there,
sends me out and up,
in her recurring dream.
She is the silence.
I am the scream.
and reaches to a peak at the close of the book in that reclamation of agency, that taking back of authorial power in ‘Effigy’, and the contemplative poems from the Fauverie that follow. The closing poem, ‘Emmanuel’ (both the name of the bell in Notre Dame cathedral and the Hebrew for ‘God is with us’) seems to support that theory in its ostensible belief in the efficacy of ritual washing and prayer, ‘Let all badness / be banished when he rings’. The final line of the poem and book is ‘I proclaimed peace after bloodshed’; for Fauverie to find this redress at a cost very clearly laid out in the body of the collection, this balancing of books where The Zoo Father perhaps did not, is a rather extraordinary gesture.
There’s little doubting that Fauverie is a difficult book, and some of its high-drama registers (‘My Father’s Wardrobe’, ‘Notre-Dame Father Speaks’) are challenging but necessary, I think, to establish its emotional disruptiveness and unevenness. Part of its communication is unworldly and grotesque, and the subject matter suits, if not necessitates, such a strategy. A useful touchstone here might be the Plath of ‘Jaguar’, perhaps elements of Olds’ The Father, as several poems feature a kind of fraught or compromised shift in the characters’ power balance which is subtle enough to be overlooked. Fauverie, however, speaks in its own idiom and embraces and makes use of its own strangeness, and after a couple of reads it began to make sense to me, if that’s the right word.
Tl;dr: Fauverie is a difficult, painful but important book, and well worth the time and effort.